South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Some months ago, I happened to have a chance conversation with a fellow traveller en route when returning to Sri Lanka. Highly educated in the engineering sciences, he hailed from Mawanella (a town close to Kandy) and after a while, the exchange turned to a discussion on how his village had changed with the passing of time.

Coming into being of hostile communities
‘I remember when we were children,’ he said ‘our Muslim neighbours and their children would treat our houses as if it was theirs and we did the same with them. We celebrated during festivals but not only that, the pace of ordinary life was punctuated with constant interactions. But now it has all changed. Everywhere we see people dressing more conservatively and there is a clear difference now in the way the communities live. They are distanced and more hostile. We are also separated and we do not want to engage with them.’

That passing exchange summarised in a nutshell, the breakdown of community relations in one village and symbolising a similar breakdown all over this unfortunate country with the passing of the decades.

It is from this gradual paralysing of trust that a single mundane sequence of action and reaction between a few human beings, which would ordinarily have been just one of many other similar incidents on a given day, spiraled into the communal violence that took place in Kandy within the space of one short but calamitous week.

Duty to enforce law and order
My conversationalist was only cognizant of the ‘hostility’ of the ‘other’ in that exchange. But as I tried to point out to him at the time, that was just part of the problem. The entrenching of the Sinhala Buddhist majority mindset has played a devastating part in the deficit of trust between communities in this land. That must be acknowledged as a core truth.

And as pointed out in these column spaces last week, the Government’s duty to enforce law and order in these situations must be properly exercised. There is little point in the President and the Prime Minister visiting the affected or the Government trumpeting the fact that ‘Kandy has returned to normal.’

This week was a good reminder of how fragile the balance is where community relations are concerned in villages and towns all around the country. Both in Ampara and in Kandy, the law enforcement authorities should have been far quicker and more effective in their initial responses.

Abstaining from superficial solutions
What the Government needs to recognise is that superficial solutions to community grievances is like a bandage that does not treat the aching and festering wound. This is true in other respects as well. Where Sri Lanka’s Tamil communities are concerned for example, the long awaited Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) has finally been established but Sri Lanka’s ‘disappeared’ from the North to the South need far more than reparations or indeed, to be told categorically that their loved ones are not among the living any more.

It is the failure to realise this fact that has resulted in a morass of unfulfilled promises out of which the OMP emerged three years later. But the OMP’s agonising gestation and contested process of coming into being has dramatically reduced the confidence of victims in the mechanism.

Great incoherence in reforms
To put the matter in context, it must not be forgotten that pronounced doubts arose even at the point at which the OMP Bill was passed into law. In a column that I wrote at the time titled ‘Cheers in Colombo, apathy in Jaffna’ (August 28th 2016)I questioned the manifest reluctance of the Government to address the problems of flawed justice institutions and pervasive systemic impunity which undermined the legitimacy of Sri Lanka’s proposed transitional justice reforms of which the OMP is one.

At that time, I referred to ‘the phenomenon of great incoherence in government’ in the formulation and strategising of transitional justice reforms which words have unfortunately now been proved to be prophetic. A compartmentalised transitional justice ‘package’ which leaves systemic impunity unaddressed was bound to falter as indeed it did. The callous ignoring of the criminal justice process in the emblematic cases of gross human rights violations such as the executions of Tamil students in Trincomalee and the Tamil/Muslim Action Contra L’ Faim aid workers in Mutur during 2006 were examples in point.

Meanwhile experiments with new counter-terror legislation became unmitigated disasters. This was what best summed up the indictment of ‘great incoherence in government’ as each embarrassment succeeded the other.There was no national effort to bring about local consensus to effect changes in laws, practices and policies that guard against enforced disappearances. Useful strategies in that regard would have been reforms in the criminal justice system and the strengthening of the legal remedy of habeas corpus which is the most powerful weapon to deter enforced disappearances.

A perilous future
Indeed as extensive studies in Sri Lanka have stressed, the remedy of habeas corpus is largely unfamiliar to both lawyers and judges. With the setting up of the OMP, a long standing demand that an independent body mandated with the task of investigating all cases of disappearance has now come to pass. That must be celebrated, warts and all. Reforming law and practices in order to deter enforced disappearances, (including a Habeas Corpus Act), and ensuring a well-balanced counter terror law are two vital accompanying steps that must now be taken.

Helpless and hapless human beings should not be permitted to vanish into the legal ‘black hole’ of the enforced disappeared any longer in Sri Lanka. That is the very minimum that needs to be ensured.

In the meanwhile, this country is heading towards an uncertain future as the communal violence of this week demonstrated. This is undoubtedly unfortunate.


Updated On: March 11, 2018